President Donald Trump promised on Wednesday to act quickly to prevent school shootings as often-tearful, occasionally angry survivors and parents of victims used a remarkable White House meeting to pour out their frustration.
“I lost a best friend, practically a brother. I’m here to use my voice because I know he can’t,” said Samuel Zeif, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which was attacked on February 14. Seventeen people were killed.
Since then, “me and my friends, we get scared when a car drives by” Zeif said. “I don’t understand why I can still go into a store and buy a weapon of war.”
The meeting was passionate, as students who lost friends in shootings and parents who lost children told the president their personal stories in unsparing detail. Trump mostly listened intently without interruption, his hands pressed against each other in front of him, grim-faced, often nodding. He thanked the speakers and, at one point, suggested he would back a controversial idea to arm teachers and other school staff members.
He held a card with notes for him in someone else’s handwriting, including a reminder, captured by photographers, to tell meeting participants, “I hear you.”
Students across the nation have rallied in support of additional firearm restrictions in the aftermath of the Florida shooting. Hundreds of Maryland students walked out of class on Wednesday and marched toward the US Capitol to promote gun control.
On Tuesday, students at a Florida high school marched toward Parkland. “We’re going to do something about this horrible situation,” Trump said. “It’s not going to be talk like it has been in the past.”
He offered few specific promises. After listening to stories from around the room, he asked a question.
“Does anybody have an idea to stop it? What is your recommendation to stop it?” he said.
The first recommendation came from Fred Abt, the father of a Parkland student who wasn’t shot. He said school employees who volunteer for it should be trained and armed. Trump nodded vigorously and then ridiculed the idea of making schools gun-free zones.
“A gun-free zone is, ‘let’s go in and let’s attack, because bullets aren’t coming back at us,”’ he said.
“If you had a teacher with – who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly,” Trump continued. “We’re going to be looking at that very strongly. A lot of people are going to be opposed to it. I think a lot of people are going to like it.”
Trump had disputed the idea he would allow guns in schools during the presidential campaign, tweeting out a message that “Crooked Hillary said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!”
The meeting came a day after the president asked the Justice Department to draft rules prohibiting accessories known as “bump stocks” that allow semiautomatic rifles to be fired more rapidly. The suspect in the Florida shooting didn’t use a bump stock, though the accused sniper in a mass shooting in Las Vegas last October used such a device in an attack that killed more than 50 concert-goers and wounded hundreds more.
Trump has also signaled support for a bipartisan Senate bill that would strengthen current laws required federal agencies to report information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The House passed a similar bill in December, but added legislation that would require states to recognise concealed carry licenses from other states. House conservatives would likely balk at separating the two issues, while the House version of the bill would likely fail in the Senate.
Trump told the group at the White House that he plans “very strong” actions on background checks for gun purchases and to put “an emphasis” on mental health treatment.
Passions flared at moments during the White House meeting, which included parents of other students killed in school shootings.
“It should have been one school shooting and we should have fixed it. I’m pissed!” said Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the Parkland shooting. “Never ever will I see my kid. I want it to sink in. It’s eternity.”
“I’m just begging for a change. We need a change,” added Melissa Blank, the mother of a Parkland student, who is also a teacher’s aide at a nearby school.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer signaled on Wednesday that Democrats will renew a fight to toughen gun laws, saying the party’s top priority “is going to be universal background checks” for gun purchasers, including ending the exemption for weapons sold at gun shows.
Trump, who campaigned on a promise to protect the rights of gun owners, tweeted Tuesday, “Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!”
Trump was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and has routinely touted his support for the organisation, and his campaign said Trump opposed expanding the background check system or imposing new restrictions on gun and magazine bans. Trump is expected to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, which NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre is also expected to attend.
A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday found 97 per cent support for universal background checks, while 67 per cent backed a ban on the sale of assault weapons.
Schumer said he wants a broader measure than the bill Trump supports, written by Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, and Connecticut’s Chris Murphy, a Democrat. Their legislation wouldn’t expand background checks to additional sales channels.
Schumer and Senator Dianne Feinstein have called on Republicans including Trump to back her proposed legislative ban on bump stocks and other rapid-fire attachments for semi-automatic rifles.
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said he’s working with Feinstein on raising the age limit to 21 from 18 for non-military buyers of handguns. Trump told the meeting he would “go very strongly into” the issue of age limits.
Asked on Tuesday if Trump would support renewing a federal assault weapons ban that expired more than a decade ago, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at a briefing that “we haven’t closed the door on any front.” She also said it “hasn’t yet been determined” whether there should be a federal age limit for purchasing semiautomatic rifles like the one the Florida gunman bought as a teenager.
The Florida state Legislature, dominated by Republicans, on Tuesday declined to debate a bill from Democrats to ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines heard on the House floor.